Designer Kim Dempster loves a building with a story, and the Mediterranean-style Marina District home she purchased with her husband, Mark, came with an exotic tale. According to a historian the couple hired, a Croatian countess was the first occupant in 1930, and the house itself was built on the site of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and designed by one of the fair’s architects. “Usually, the story of a house emanates from a time or place, the people who lived there or the architecture. Here, it came from all three of those things,” Kim notes. Armed with this knowledge, the couple set out to add their family’s own chapter. “I wanted to revitalize this home and give a shiny luster to the original vision of the creators,” she says.
The couple hired architect Joo Young Oh to orchestrate a whole-house renovation that would extend it by eight feet in the back to make way for a lower-level media room, a great room adjacent to an enlarged kitchen, more bedroom space upstairs and a roof deck on top. The prevailing imperative at every step was to preserve the original details making the house distinctive–vibrant, locally crafted tile; hand-forged stair rails; decorative plasterwork and trim and whimsically painted ceiling beams. “We didn’t touch any of those,” says Oh, noting general contractor Jay Blumenfeld’s team carefully removed the dining room beams to protect them during construction.
Oh enhanced the connection between new and old spaces with fresh millwork and trim that nods to the originals. “It’s in the same language as the architecture, but we reinterpreted it to be a little bit more modern,” she says. And as she contemplated a stair to the new roof terrace, Oh commissioned an artisan to replicate the existing rails. “The metalwork was beautifully done and flawlessly executed,” she says.
Kim had the walls painted white inside and out to ensure every detail stands out to the best effect. Previously, the walls were colored with a Tuscan yellow-beige hue, she says, “but it wasn’t what the house was telling me it really wanted and it didn’t fit in with its history.” The designer then tapped into her family’s wanderlust as inspiration for the rest of the interior design. When asked about the project’s genesis, she is quick to respond with: “Vacations inspired this home.” It’s a fitting concept since the boats in the marina across the street resemble a Mediterranean setting, one of the family’s favorite destinations.
The upstairs living area could, in fact, be easily mistaken for a luxury lounge in a well-appointed hotel. Her first purchase for the house–a Turkish light fixture dripping with colored globes–hangs among the painted ceiling beams and strikes an exotic note. Oh designed a passageway connecting the space to an adjacent bar area, where Kim installed vintage ice-cream parlor stools that she reupholstered with red leather and fringe to approximate the ones in Rick’s Cafe from the movie Casablanca. An existing covered balcony got an upgrade with steel-framed doors and windows to open up the views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. “This room was the inspiration for the whole house,” Kim explains.
The designer chose a vintage Moroccan pendant to hang over the dining-room table, and its filigreed metalwork casts a panoply of shadows and light that can be seen from the street at night, just as the Turkish light’s colored globes glow outward from the second floor. “I have them on when we leave at night because I like to see them when we return,” Kim says. She carried that mystique to the roof deck, which was inspired by top-floor lounges in Marrakesh outfitted with long benches and colorful cushions to accommodate a crowd. Landscape architect Peter Ker Walker designed planters full of colorful succulents to line the back of the built-in seating along one side of the deck. “The plants are low, wind resistant, require little maintenance and don’t restrict the rooftop views,” he says.
For more formal gatherings, Kim revitalized the living room’s original elegance, adding dark hardwood floors and furnishing it with refined midcentury modern Italian pieces. An existing dry bar was reborn as a Champagne bar. The whole look, she says, brings her back to an Italian seaside hotel, the J.K. Place Capri. “That place just really stuck with me,” she explains.
Looking around, the family is reminded of similar unforgettable destinations and romantic locales they’ve visited. “I’ve been captivated by hotel design in far-flung locations–places where they’ve been willing to take risks to evoke a distinct feeling of place,” Kim says. But for this traveling-loving family, coming home isn’t the end of the adventure.